Stuart King

Review: THE MONGOL KHAN at London Coliseum

Ladies and Gentlemen, we apologise for the late starting of the performance — this is due to unprecedented queues at the box office”, rang-out the announcement over the loud speakers 25minutes after curtain-up had been and gone. In truth, it was more like wholesale crush and confusion in the London Coliseum’s foyer, but what’s a little hyperbole between friends on the press night for an already super-hyped, exotic foreign import?

The Mongol Khan at the London Coliseum. Photo Katja OgrinThe Mongol Khan at the London Coliseum. Photo Katja Ogrin

THE MONGOL KHAN is one of those large-scale travelling productions which attempts to tell a traditional tale by detailing key events in the life of an historical figure through heavily costumed drama and stylised movement, usually with an impressively large cast. Here, the company numbers 70, though in reality there are only half a dozen principal characters in this yarn inspired by the traditional nomadic culture of the Hunnic Empire.

The Khan in question is suddenly blessed with two sons in a matter of days. One from his Queen with whom he hasn’t been intimate for many years, the other from his more recent consort whom he loves beyond measure. It transpires the Khan’s Iago-like lieutenant is the real father of the Queen’s surprise child and has malice in mind. After pressure to swap babies and declarations about the chosen heir, we leap forward to a confrontation between the Khan now in his middle years and his chosen successor who is clearly genetically disposed to present certain unpleasant and disturbing character traits. Events spiral and take on the air of Greek tragedy, but it’s all very impressive and serious.

For a production which had the potential to be an overblown and naïf tourist vehicle, thankfully it quickly settled into its groove. This was especially noticeable when characters were faced with heartrending decisions. Despite the stylised presentation, the actors really managed to convey the torture of humanity when faced with impossible emotional situations. The costumes are glorious, surtitled translations (by Timberlake Wertembaker) occasionally amusing, acting is powerfully evocative and the music/drumming is both rousing and intimidating by turns. On press night, the auditorium was populated with a good number of Eastern nationals and dignitaries, with many in traditional Mongolian costume which added an immeasurable theatricality to the opening performance and a real sense that this was a spectacle you’d be foolish to miss.